Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Shame

Have you ever had the experience of taking in a piece of art and then, once you have either finished watching, looking at or listening to it, you think to yourself "I have no idea what I just experienced?" I used to be ashamed of that feeling. I was under the impression that if I didn't get it or if I didn't understand what understated, metaphorical artistic meaning the creator of said piece of art was trying to communicate that that meant I was an idiot! Well, I had a wonderful experience a couple of days ago that finally got me to think a bit differently about these experiences.

But before I get to that I want to highlight a number of experiences I've had which resulted in the aforementioned feeling of shame. I consider myself a relatively intelligent individual. I comprehend a majority of the things I read, see and hear. I can have fairly intelligent conversations about politics, art, culture, food On occasion I am even able to give a wise piece of advice to someone who needs it. So, why is it that someone in Hollywood can produce a movie with a strong narrative, solid characters, thoughtfully shot sequences and clever dialogue that at the end leaves me scratching my head and wondering if I'd be better off sticking with Sponge Bob?

One of the first experiences I had this feeling with was a little movie starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. At the end of that film I felt as if someone had dumped a bucket of Shakespeare on me. I just didn't get it. Then there was Annie Hall. Next was Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and the list goes on and on. I was scratching my head and wondering what in the world I had just been through. The interesting thing was there were elements in all of these films, parts of these stories, that really struck me. I had a very real, emotional response to all of these films. So, why was it that I didn't feel as if I fully understood these stories? Why did I feel like the entire world was looking at me going "don't you get it?" Then came Vanilla Sky.

Vanilla Sky stars Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz and Jason Lee; with wonderful supporting turns by Kurt Russell, Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall and Tilda Swinton. The films' Director, Cameron Crowe, directed one of my favorite movies: Almost Famous. Almost Famous is a movie I connected with from the first frame. It's a story that I dove into head-first and was immersed in the entire time. So, why is it that I couldn't connect with Vanilla Sky? To answer that question I turn the amazing Roger Ebert. Those of you who are familiar with film critics know that Roger Ebert is to film criticism what B.B. King is to Blues. He's the godfather of film critique and he said something that absolutely amazed me. He said:

"This is the kind of movie you don't want to analyze until you've seen it two times.

I've seen it two times. I went to a second screening because after the first screening I thought I knew what had happened, but was nagged by the idea that certain things might not have happened the way I thought they had. Now that I've seen it twice, I think I understand it, or maybe not."

Roger Ebert had to see it twice?! The man they call the Movie Answerman had to see a movie twice and still might not have understood it? Admittedly, I was quite relieved. you see, when I see a movie and either don't understand it, don't like it, don't want to like it but kind of do, etc. I read Roger Ebert's review. I did the same with this movie and the above quoted text was part of what I was met with. It was kind of like a small revelation.

Certain pieces of art, and our appreciation for those pieces is sometimes more fully rewarded upon multiple views, listens, etc. I have a very close friend who used to use the phrase "it grew on me." I hated that phrase because I held that if a piece of art didn't fully affect you the first time it wasn't doing it's job. In my opinion it had it's chance and if it didn't want to give me everything it had the first time 'round I wasn't going to wait for it. I was wrong. A story generally gets better with each telling. I gain something in being able to bypass the larger more obvious points and allow myself to draw closer to the details. A well told story deserves the opportunity to reveal, little by little the beauty hidden deeper within it.

So, I'm not feeling shame now at the fact that I didn't get Vanilla Sky the first time out. I'm also not writing it off. In fact, before I return it to Blockbuster I'm going to watch it again; and I look forward to what I'll discover this time 'round.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Identity

Disclaimer: This is not a review of the movie whose story I'll be discussing. These are merely observations about the story itself. Thank you.

A story, much like a human being, has numerous stages of development. There is the idea; the point of conception. In the development of some stories there is the 'notes' process. This process consists of writing blurbs about the idea in a notebook or perhaps on your PC or laptop. (Imagine that during this paragraph there is 1950's instructional-video music playing and everything you're reading is being narrated in the same style.) The notes period could be considered gestation. Then, of course there is the actual writing of the story. This I suppose is akin to the birthing process. Now, after these various stages of development you have a rough draft. A rough draft is very much like a baby. It is the story but it hasn't matured. Thus, the rough draft needs to be workshopped. It is this workshopping or maturing that, hopefully, produces a story with a fully formed IDENTITY.

Stories need to know who they are. A story that knows who it is and what it's trying to communicate is like a mature human being. It has purpose. It has a good grip on what it's strengths and weaknesses are. It knows what it's trying to say. A story with a weak or partially formed identity has trouble effectively communicating who it is. Let's face it, if the story doesn't know who it is we aren't going to know who it is.

Okay, you've been metaphorized (yeah, I know it's not a word) to death. Now we'll get to the point. I recently saw the movie 'Kick-Ass'. The concept is clever. A teenage kid fed up with injustice and bewildered at the fact that nobody has tried being a superhero decides to try it for himself. This is the basic premise for the story. Had the story built it's entire arc on this foundation I think it would've genuinely discovered who it is. However, what it chose to do instead was follow the previously mentioned story line and follow 2 other pretty major story lines. Not only that, it started out being a story about what would actually happen should someone with no training attempt to be a comic book superhero and devolved into a story about...well...pick pretty much any other action/superhero story where at least one of the main-characters' actions are motivated by revenge. The primary problem with the 'Kick-Ass' story is that it seems to lack a fully formed identity. It couldn't decide wether to be a story about the reality of vigilante justice or the relationship between a father and daughter where the father has suffered some pretty severe mental trauma due to the loss of his wife. It couldn't decide wether to be a parody of superhero movies or the re-imagined form of the superhero genre. In short it was still going through puberty.

When you've finished the next novel you're reading or movie you've seen take a moment and think about the identity of that story. Did it know who it was? Was the story given the chance to become what it was meant to be? Did the storyteller, like a good parent, give that story the time and attention it needed to develop it's true identity?